The Ordinary Education of Albert Einstein

It has dawned on me that, as parents, we are convinced that our kids are extraordinary.  In fact, we believe that they have so much hidden brilliance and talent that we feel that exposing them to anything ordinary is a crime against their percolating potential.  Take their schooling as an example.  Right now the hottest trend in education is child-centred instruction.  In short, this is an approach to teaching where the interests of the child influence what is taught.  Actually, “teaching” isn’t really what happens.  It’s more like facilitating.  This, we are told, will unlock our child’s love for learning and boundless potential because she’ll be guided by her natural curiosity.

That means that “traditional” learning gets left out in the cold.

Allow me to explain what I mean by “traditional” learning.  I’m not necessarily talking about brick and mortar schools, but about teaching basic, foundational skills in math, reading, writing, and so on.  It also involves direct instruction or, in other words, allowing a teacher to determine the material that is to be taught instead of simply facilitating a child’s current interests.  Traditional learning can, but not always, involve things like practice, repetition, and memorization.

But Traditional learning is so mundane.  Our kids aren’t ordinary, are they?  Each child has an Einstein, Bach, or Monet hidden deep inside, doesn’t she?  Anything ordinary simply isn’t going to unlock all that latent intellectual and creative radiance.

Speaking of Einstein, I’ve noticed that he seems to have become the poster boy for child-centred instruction.  You’ve probably heard the stories before.  Einstein didn’t talk until he was four; his parents took him to a doctor to see if there was something wrong with him; he was told he’d never amount to anything; he was once kicked out of school because he was seen as rebellious; he hated school but loved learning.  And the rest is history.

Pretty inspirational, isn’t it?  I mean, this guy was anything but ordinary.  Yet how could such an extraordinary individual have become that way with such a commonplace, traditional education?  That’s the part we often skip over because it just doesn’t fit our expectations.  There are many parents and educators who like to think that Einstein bucked against the “system” and became the brilliant man that he was through his own thoughtfulness, curiosity and self-direction.  Being thoughtful and curious may have been the catalyst, but certainly not the means.

Einstein attended a run-of-the-mill catholic school at the age of six and was later accepted into Luitpold Gymnasium, a strict and very traditional school.  While he may not have been fond of the strictness of those schools, there’s nothing to suggest that Einstein didn’t actually learn a great deal.  When he looked to continue his education in university, he actually failed the entrance exam for admission into Zurich Polytechnic.  However, he didn’t rely on his curiosity and brilliance to help him pass the second time – he spent the next year in a Swiss secondary school (again, quite ordinary) in order to help him prepare.

There are a few things we can note as we consider his formal education.  First, he received a traditional education.  Second, his brilliance wasn’t recognized until later – after his formal education.  Third, as much as we might be led to believe that he was some kind of academic rebel, he wasn’t.  He may have expressed frustration about the “system” but he relied on the “system” to get him into a traditional post-secondary institution.

As you can see there was nothing amazing about his education.  He didn’t have a chance to direct his own learning nor was he given the opportunity to discover new concepts and ideas (that came much later).  There’s no arguing with his brilliance and his curiosity, but even those weren’t enough.  He needed to be taught directly.  He may have had a rebellious streak, was unhappy at times with conventional schooling, but to suggest that traditional learning taught him nothing is more than a stretch.

There’s more evidence to suggest that Einstein cultivated his brilliance because of his traditional education, not in spite of it.

So, what’s my point?

When it comes to education, our culture is enamored with the idea that kids should, in some way, direct their own learning according to their interests or, at the very least, be given the tools to discover meaningful information.  We are so hung up over this idea that our children need to be critical thinkers that we either forget or completely ignore the fact that, in order to become a creative, innovative, and critical thinker, requisite knowledge must be present in the first place!

We stumble over ourselves as we rush from one educational trend to the next, trying to ensure that students reach that golden “trifecta” of elementary education: a love for learning, the ability to think critically, and a positive self-esteem.  Of course we should strive to produce students who can have all of these things and more.  The problem, as I see it, is that the goal has become the means.  In other words, instead of teaching the essential knowledge and skills that will ultimately allow a student to one day invent, create or innovate, we skip over that elemental requirement completely.

Am I suggesting that our kids will never achieve great things in their lifetime?  A resounding no!  Nor am I implying that we should never look to inspire our kids to reach for great things.  Actually, what I am saying is that we should give our kids every possible chance to be great at whatever they choose to do.  But if we buy into this notion that a child should guide her own learning and avoid things like direct instruction – we are robbing our kids of the chance to discover and pursue their interests.

Let me put it another way: If we don’t teach – whether it’s in our schools our at home – our kids foundational skills in math, reading, writing, science, etc. we run the risk of taking away a child’s chance to discover an interest or skill.  The mastery of basic arithmetic, for example, leads to an understanding of more complex math which can, in time, inspire a child to ply his creative interests in engineering.  Another student may never be able to share her gift for storytelling if she never learns the basics of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar (or she could just blog).

The education of our kids is a path.  At the beginning, in the primary and elementary grades, our focus should be on teaching foundational skills and knowledge.  As they move along the path and they acquire more knowledge and skills we can then begin to use what they have been taught and have them engage in activities that require the critical application of their knowledge.  One can’t come before the other.

As always, I’ll be blunt.  It’s extremely unlikely that my children or yours will turn out to be the exception.  In other words, those individuals who claim to have been self-taught as children, while extraordinary, are an extremely rare breed.  Yet, some parents and educators look to them and figure that your average student can and should be able to learn in the same way.

Allow me to share one final thought.  Our kids can be brilliant, insightful, innovative, and successful.   Here’s the catch: it may take time, a lot of learning, a lot of setbacks, and a lot of determination (not to mention a lot of help from the parents).  What we consider to be traditional and ordinary may actually hold the key, at least in part, to unlocking all of this potential we keep talking about.

There’s no denying that Einstein was brilliant.  We love to post his quotes about his thoughts on education, knowledge and creativity.  But that’s all they are – snippets of thoughts.  They don’t comprise the whole of the man.  While he may not have enjoyed traditional learning the bottom line is that he was taught – directly – and what he learned formed the basic foundation for his genius and insights later in life.


Books by Marc Lapointe




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